The Boston Celtics have now been gouged for 595 points through their first five games, the most total points they've allowed through five games in more than four decades. A team that entered the season with aspirations of a top-five defense exited Wednesday’s game sitting just outside the bottom five in the NBA in defensive rating while allowing 110.6 points per 100 possessions.
Maybe it’s simply adjusting to new schemes under a first-year coach. Maybe there’s some woes given the injuries and illness that have put the rotation in flux to start the year.
But, more condemning, it appears that Boston’s early season struggles are related to an inconsistency in intensity and focus, the sort that plagued the team throughout the 2020-21 season.
Al Horford struck a somber tone after Wednesday’s 116-107 loss to the Washington Wizards at TD Garden. It was Boston’s second straight home loss to start the season and short-circuited any momentum gained from a pair of road wins to start the week.
We’re left pondering two areas of concern in the aftermath: Boston’s inconsistent defense and the 2020 draft class disappearance.
As the Celtics settle into Udoka’s defensive system, they’ve operated with a bit of trepidation. Instead of letting their collective defensive talents guide them, Boston has repeatedly been tripped up by lapses, especially in switch-heavy stretches.
When forced to lock in with their backs against the wall, the Celtics tend to play their most inspired defense. But unlike against the Hornets on Monday night, the Celtics ran out of gas at the finish line against the Wizards and came unglued long enough to ensure Washington would emerge with the victory.
Udoka offered sharp criticisms while suggesting that his players didn’t have the “proper respect for your opponent.” He added, "It's discouraging we can't hold the lead but also that we aren't playing with the right effort to stay in the game until we get down. It's a habit we definitely have to break.”
Udoka also admitted it was "mindboggling” that Jaylen Brown started slow after his big performance in Charlotte. Udoka left open the possibility that Brown’s 10-day COVID absence could be a factor in that and suggested he needs to do more as a coach to get Brown activated early.
But allowing a 38-point second quarter did little to aid a team that dug itself an early hole because of a wayward offense. Boston made a couple of spirited second-half runs but could never quite sustain that momentum.
Now, about the rotation. It’s easy to second guess a coach’s decision to lean on nine guys in the aftermath of a frustrating loss. But on a night that the team clearly needed a Dunkin’ turbo shot, it was curious that 2020 draftees Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith never saw the floor.
Pritchard logged the first DNP - Coach’s Decision of his pro career. Nesmith picked up his second in as many games. All while Romeo Langford missed his third straight game due to calf tightness.
The Celtics were playing their fifth game in eight days. Two of those contests went to overtime. But Udoka went with a veteran-heavy, nine-man rotation and got limited return from depth pieces. All this while Boston starters connected on just 5 of 21 3-pointers.
Josh Richardson and Grant Williams both played 15-plus minutes without contributing a single field goal (Williams did make six free throws but struggled to dent the box score otherwise). Dennis Schroder gave the bench a spark with 22 points but on less-than-efficient 6-of-15 shooting over 34 minutes.
It’s not unexpected that a first-year coach would lean heavy on veterans, particularly given an up-and-down start to the season. There’s also no guarantee that younger players like Nesmith -- who hasn’t made a single shot yet this season -- or Pritchard -- who has missed 12 of his 16 shots this year -- could have rescued the team’s sputtering offense.
But if the Celtics are going to navigate some choppy waters this season then developing their younger talent is vital to whatever is ahead. Pritchard and Nesmith need to be key pieces of a core that allows the team to spend every available dollar on another impact talent. If nothing else, they need to be brought along as to emerge as valuable trade assets in that same pursuit. Langford really needs to swat the injury bug, too.
Again, it’s easier for an armchair coach to lean into a youth movement than the first-year coach who feels a natural pressure to succeed. But if this team is going to outkick expectations and set itself up for a brighter future, then youth is a necessity.
If the Celtics are going to take some lumps then do it while allowing players like Pritchard and Nesmith to learn along the way, too. Short-term pains could deliver long-term returns.
So long as the veterans on the team put in the effort to maximize any advances that young core makes.